Rants and musings from the magazine team
History remembers the victors, but some of the most dramatic moments in 20 years of the Premier League have come in relegation battles – tense, all-or-nothing affairs. In November 2000, FourFourTwo recalled a day full of them.
Swindon were down. So were Oldham, barring a miracle. But who would join them in Division One? On 7 May, 1994, four teams were fighting for their Premier League lives.
The Build-UpAs dawn broke on Saturday 7 May 1994, Everton fans awoke to contemplate a potentially dreadful day in their club’s history. After losing 3-0 to Leeds United the week before, the Toffees had dropped into the Premier League relegation zone, one point behind Ipswich Town, Sheffield United and Southampton. Unless results that afternoon, the final day of the season, went their way, Everton would be dumped unceremoniously into Division One (as it then was). Their opponents were Wimbledon, who had nothing to play for, but who were also notoriously difficult opponents.
"It was win at all costs," recalls former Everton right-back Ian Snodin. He and his team-mates knew that if Everton drew they would need Ipswich to lose at Blackburn in order to stay up – they would be unable to catch Southampton and Sheffield United, who had vastly superior goal differences. "No matter what we did, if everyone else won their game we’d be relegated," says former striker Tony Cottee. "We were relying on others."
Wimbledon went into the game in sixth place, on the back of a nine-game unbeaten run, seven of which they’d won. The Everton faithful were clearly worried: the Wimbledon team bus was set on fire the night before the game in the hope that the Crazy Gang would be put off their stride. It didn’t work.
"If it’d been anybody but Wimbledon I’d have thought, 'Perhaps they’ll roll over and let us win', but they’d have loved to send Everton down because we’d had some battles with them in the past," says Snodin. "At the time they were also a good team with some very good players," says Cottee, "so we knew it was going to be tough."
Former Dons boss Dave Bassett was also hoping Wimbledon would do him a favour, as he was now manager of Sheffield United. "Sam Hammam felt he had been snubbed once by Everton and wanted to see their demise," says Bassett in his book Harry’s Game. "He even offered his players a holiday in Las Vegas if they won."
United had pulled themselves clear of the danger zone with two wins and a draw in consecutive games and approached their encounter with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in relaxed mood. "We didn’t think they’d be up for it because they were in the FA Cup final the following week and nobody wanted to get injured," says former United defender and lifelong fan Carl Bradshaw. "Some of the other teams had difficult games so a draw would have done us."
With a tough away match at Premier League runners-up Blackburn Rovers awaiting them, Ipswich Town would also have been happy to pick up a point. "We thought a draw would have been a great result," admits John Wark, then approaching the end of his illustrious playing career with the club. "That was our aim and we hoped other results went for us."
Southampton had what appeared to be the easiest game of the four teams. They were playing West Ham, who were lying in 12th place, at Upton Park. They could go for the win with more confidence, knowing the Hammers had little more than pride to play for.
"We weren’t expecting any favours from West Ham," says the Southampton skipper, Francis Benali. "But if you know that a draw might be enough, there are some doubts as to whether you go for the win. That’s completely the wrong approach to take."
The First Half
Everton got off to the worst possible start. After four minutes, Anders Limpar inexplicably stuck out a hand to Gary Elkins’ corner and Dean Holdsworth scored from the resulting penalty.
Seven minutes later, Danny Williamson gave West Ham the lead at Upton Park. "I began to think, 'Oh my God, here we go', because we didn’t know what the scores were elsewhere," says Benali. But the Saints’ worries were short-lived – Wimbledon doubled their lead over Everton on 20 minutes, when Gary Ablett sliced an Andy Clarke shot (which was going wide) into his own net. "The way in which we conceded the goals was ridiculous – typical of our season," says Everton’s manager at the time, Mike Walker.
Moments later, Holdsworth missed a clear-cut opportunity to make it 3-0. "That would’ve been game over," says Cottee. "Teams rarely come back from 3-0 down to win." Then, on 24 minutes, Graham Stuart gave Everton a glimmer of hope when he pulled a goal back from the penalty spot following a foul on Limpar by Peter Fear. "It was crucial that we hit back straight away," says Snodin. "If we’d had two minutes to reflect on the situation it would have been difficult to pick ourselves up and get a result."
However, things went from bad to worse for Everton. On 29 minutes Jostein Flo gave Sheffield United the lead at Chelsea. Then, on the stroke of half-time, a trademark Matt Le Tissier free-kick drew Southampton level with West Ham. Meanwhile, Ipswich were holding firm against a Blackburn attack spearheaded by Alan Shearer at the height of his powers. "We were quite cautious in the first half," says Ipswich midfielder Geraint Williams. "We knew we had to pick something up and if we were two or three down by half-time that would’ve been impossible."
"Blackburn were doing most of the attacking," says Wark. "It was like Custer’s last stand: we had a flag planted on the edge of our box."
Everton 1-2 WimbledonChelsea 0-1 Sheffield UnitedWest Ham 1-1 SouthamptonBlackburn 0-0 Ipswich
As the teams trudged off at half-time, the bottom of the table was much as it had been that morning. As fans around the country tuned in their radios, they learned that as long as Wimbledon led, other results would be immaterial.
That left Everton needing to twice breach a defence that had conceded three or more goals only four times in the Premier League that season – to the top three, Manchester United, Blackburn and Newcastle, plus Leeds United, who finished fifth. "Having got a goal back, there was no need for me to start shouting," says Mike Walker, whose players were not made aware of what was happening elsewhere. "The players still knew what they had to do."
Instead, it was left to the elder statesmen in the Everton dressing room to rally the troops. "I’m one of those players who went around boisterously voicing my opinion to get the lads going," says Snodin. "Dave Watson was another. If it was left to the three or four of us, there was no way we were going down."
"It helped that it was still win or bust," says Cottee. "We had to go out and keep piling on the pressure. And we did. I don’t remember Wimbledon having too many chances in the second half."
Ipswich, on the other hand, were still happy to just keep things tight at Ewood Park and hope that Everton wouldn’t come from behind to beat Wimbledon. At half-time, according to Wark, Town manager John Lyall merely said, "You’re defending well: just try and hold out and hit them on the break." Sometimes that tactic can work. Sometimes, of course, it can not bring salvation.
The Second Half
If the first half was the undercard, then the second half was the main event. After seven minutes of sparring, the punches were thrown thick and fast. Southampton drew first blood, Neil Maddison’s 52nd-minute strike giving Saints the lead at Upton Park and making them all but safe. Then, in the space of three minutes before the hour mark, Jakob Kjeldberg’s headed equaliser for Chelsea was immediately cancelled out by a Glyn Hodges goal for Sheffield United. "From then on we thought we were cruising, no problems," says Carl Bradshaw.
Matthew Rush and Le Tissier then exchanged goals at Upton Park. Everton, who were now laying siege to the Wimbledon goal, still occupied the third and final relegation spot, still needed to win, but were still trailing 2-1.
But, in the 67th minute, the ball broke loose from a corner for Barry Horne – who hadn’t scored all season – to lash a 30-yard shot past a helpless Hans Segers into the top left-hand corner of the Wimbledon goal, prompting Barry Davies’ famous cry of "Oh, Horne!" on Match of the Day. It was 2-2.
"A few Everton fans came running onto the pitch," remembers Cottee – but the team’s position had not altered. Even when Mark Stein made it 2-2 for Chelsea against Sheffield United in the 77th minute, Everton remained in the dropzone. However, the pressure was now building on the Blades, who had twice surrendered the lead at Stamford Bridge.
What followed soon after was both the pivotal moment of the day and a major talking point for years to come. We are, of course, talking about Graham Stuart’s 81st-minute winner for Everton: no more than a firm, side-footed prod that squirmed past Hans Segers into the net after Stuart had played an untidy one-two with Cottee on the edge of the box.
Segers’ failure to make what seemed like a regulation save came under scrutiny two years later when he was at the centre of match-fixing allegations [thoroughly refuted and never proved - Ed.]. In his book, The Final Score, the Dutch keeper gives his account: "He hit a shot that took a deflection off another player’s leg, so that made the ball change direction slightly. The pitch was uneven and the ball hit a bump and spun beyond my control as I dived."
Everton fans teemed on to the pitch in the realisation that, for the first time all afternoon, their team were out of the relegation zone. Stuart’s goal had, instead, left Ipswich – who had been lucky not to concede a penalty in the 73rd minute when David Linighan punched a Lee Makel cross – needing to win at Blackburn. "In the last 10 minutes, I suppose we panicked and everyone was bombing forward trying to get a goal," says Geraint Williams. "We did have a few chances."
At Stamford Bridge, Sheffield United were also pushing forward in search of a winner. "Our bench said we needed to win because everybody else was winning," says Bradshaw. "A draw would have been enough, but obviously we got the wrong messages." As United committed men forward, Chelsea broke clear and caught them on the counter-attack. Glenn Hoddle – on as a second-half substitute – flicked on Dennis Wise’s cross for Stein to add his second in the 90th minute of the game. Within 30 seconds of the restart, the final whistle was blown.
At Ewood Park, though, the teams were still playing. On hearing that Chelsea had scored, Ipswich again stepped on to the back foot, believing a draw would be enough. "It was a funny game, especially the last 10 minutes," says Wark. "Our reserve goalie at the time, Clive Baker, was running up and down the line giving us messages. One minute it was, 'Attack, attack, attack', then all of a sudden we had to get back and defend."
Ipswich held on, but the reaction at Ewood Park at the final whistle was not unbridled joy at getting a draw – the players knew they had to wait for news from the other grounds. "A few players jumped in the air and some sank to their knees, but then the bench came running on so we knew we’d done it," says Geraint Williams.
As expected, Southampton joined Ipswich in escaping the Premiership trap door, despite being pegged back to 3-3 in the 90th minute before a pitch invasion at Upton Park temporarily forced the players off. By the time the players emerged from the dressing rooms, the Saints already knew they had been saved, but at Goodison Park Everton were still waiting for confirmation. "I didn’t know we’d survived until I got to the tunnel," says Cottee. "John Fashanu was there. He said, 'You’re safe, TC, you’re safe', because he obviously knew the other results."
Sheffield United had staved off the threat of relegation for 90 minutes only to be sunk by an injury-time goal conceded chasing a winner they didn’t need. "We got off the pitch as soon as possible," says Bradshaw. "Everybody was distraught. We had it in the palms of our hands and we threw it away."
"When you play Russian Roulette, you sometimes get the bullet," said a pensive Dave Bassett after the game.
Full timeEverton 3-2 WimbledonChelsea 3-2 Sheffield UnitedWest Ham 3-3 SouthamptonBlackburn 0-0 Ipswich
"The scenes after the game were unbelievable," says Mike Walker. "There were grown men crying." Although the champagne corks popped in the Everton dressing room, not everybody was in the mood for celebrating. "From my point of view it was a time of relief," says Cottee, who left the club four months later. "Celebrations are for cup finals and winning the league."
Of course, the Toffees did have FA Cup success to celebrate a year later, but faced more struggles against relegation until the arrival of Walter Smith as manager, despite pledges – like that made by two-goal hero Stuart after the Wimbledon match – of "We must never let this happen again."
For Ipswich, whose brush with relegation had been expected, survival proved to be no more than a stay of execution. They finished the next season propping up the Premier League. "After the game, John Lyall said to us, 'You’re very lucky to still be in the Premiership,' says John Wark."
For Sheffield United (and Swindon Town and Oldham Athletic), relegation had dire consequences. They were relegated at a time when the gulf between Division One and the Premier League – in terms of quality of football and financial rewards – was starting to widen and have never threatened to return since [until 2006 – Posterity Editor]. After the Chelsea match, Bassett described the relegation as "the most difficult and emotional time I’ve experienced." There are many who played or watched football that day who would feel the same.
From the November 2000 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!
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